THE MAN at the top of Northern Ireland’s education system is stalling on plans to turn a Donaghadee primary into an integrated school, it has been claimed.

The accusation has been levelled by North Down MLA Connie Egan this week, as she accused Department of Education permanent secretary Mark Browne of delaying the parent-supported integrated bid by St Anne’s Primary.

A department spokesman denied the allegation, stating that such moves always take a long time as they’re subject to lengthy consultation and analysis.

However, Ms Egan claims there is a ‘disappointing lack of urgency and willingness to progress this proposal from the department’.

She met with Mr Browne last week, but says she left infuriated when the top official couldn’t say that the school’s proposal would be approved, or give an estimated time frame to make a decision either way.

In late 2021, a landslide 96% of parents backed the idea of transforming St Anne’s from a Catholic Maintained school to an Integrated one, with officials at the primary saying they hoped to reopen in their new form in September of this year.

Normally Northern Ireland’s Education Minister has the final say on a school asking to change its sector; a few weeks after the landslide St Anne’s vote, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed when the DUP walked out to protest the NI Protocol.

Last November civil servants took over the day-to-day running of Stormont departments, meaning Mr Browne will now make the decision on whether or not to let St Anne’s have an integrated future.

Ms Egan met with the permanent secretary on Tuesday last week, hoping to get some news on when the final verdict will be in – but says he ‘failed to provide firm commitments or timescales to sign off on the proposal’.

Says the Alliance MLA: “I have been delighted to support the St Anne’s campaign to transform to integrated status.

“The parent-led campaign has been inspirational and it’s exciting to see St Anne’s take these steps towards becoming an integrated school; however, the lack of urgency and willingness to progress this proposal from the department has been very disappointing.

“[Since last week’s meeting] I have written to the department requesting detailed information about where the proposal is within the process, and when it will be ready to be signed off.

“In November 2021, parents voted ‘yes’ to integrated status; the department must now deliver on the clear demand for integrated education in Donaghadee, and give the school the go-ahead to transform.”

Ms Egan adds that although St Anne’s has already done a lot of work with a parents’ action group and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, staff will inevitably need preparation time in order to open their doors in a new sector with a transformed ethos – and, potentially, a boost in pupil numbers.

“The department must do more to support the school,” she says.

“St Anne’s deserves clarity and firm commitments from the department to allow them time to prepare for the increased enrolment that will come before the new school year begins in September.”

A department spokesman stated that all transformation proposals, including the one from St Anne’s, are ‘subject to a statutory consultation process and in-depth analysis prior to the decision-taker’s consideration and decision’.

Added the spokesman: “There is no lack of urgency or willingness to progress this proposal from the department.

“The permanent secretary indicated at their meeting on February 14 that he would write to Ms Egan about this matter and did so on February 16. He is currently considering further correspondence received from her.”